• March 3, 2016
  • 252

Original spelling of surnames: pre-election bluffing?

The issue of spelling of names and surnames of Polish minority in Lithuania has been a sticking point in the Polish-Lithuanian relations. During the upcoming spring session, the Seimas is about to accept an Act on spelling of names and surnames. Yet, we still do not know which project will be supported by the parliamentarian majority.

Diacritics such as „ą”, „ę”, „ż”, „ś”, „ź” are one of the most characteristic traits of the Polish language. A renowned Polis linguist Prof. Jerzy Bralczyk encourages to use them: “We should use Polish diacritics, their extinction would be a huge impoverishment for the language and thus for life” he says.

How Rekść became Rekst

Since the beginning of the 90s, when Lithuania gained its independence, the Lithuanian alphabet started to be used instead of the Russian Cyrillic, and the names and surnames of Polish minority are spelled with the use of the Lithuanian alphabet. Since then, Anna became Ana, Andrzej – Andžej, Kleczkowski – Klečkovski, and Rekść – Rekst.

In 2010, the conservatives tried to regulate this issue, back then the Seimas rejected a project prepared by the Prime Minister at the time Andrius Kubilius which allowed for, amongst other things, spelling a Polish surname in the Polish alphabet. The main argument was the fear of the fate of the Lithuanian language. More importantly, the issue of spelling of names and surnames affects not only the Polish community in Lithuania, but also the rest of the Lithuanian citizens, especially women who married a foreigner and want their surname to be spelled the same as their husband’s.

The Lithuanian language status is defined by the Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania and the Act on National Language. Undeniably, The State Commission of the Lithuanian Language is its guardian. The Committee blocked many attempts at regulation of the spelling of non-Lithuanian surnames. Last year, it allowed for original spelling of surnames of non-Lithuanian Lithuanian citizens on condition that a legitimate source document is presented. Still, the question of what a “source document” is remains.

Three solutions

The need to solve the problem of original spelling of surnames was noticed by the current government of the Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius as the issue has been included in social democrats’ government program. Since the very beginning, those concerned were fed with promises by the Prime Minister. Early this year, Butkevičius publicly declared that the issue of spelling will be solved in spring. “I am taking the responsibility for that” said the Prime Minister for “Znad Wilii” Radio.

During the spring session, the parliamentarians are going to have quite a challenge because three projects on names and surnames spelling await consideration. The project from social democrats allows for original spelling (including diacritics) in IDs belonging to citizens of the Republic of Lithuania. Conservatives’ project assumes that the original spelling of non-Lithuanian surnames should be allowed only in further pages of the passport. A project prepared by citizens’ initiative “Tłoka na rzecz państwowego języka litweskiego” does not greatly differ from the conservatives’ project – original spelling on further pages of the passport, the representatives of this group also would like for the Act on names and surnames spelling to specify that the Lithuanian alphabet contains 32 letters.

Are conservatives blocking social democrats’ idea?

„I am sure that our project is going to be included in the Seimas proceedings. Whether it is going to be voted through, that is a different question” – said one of the initiators of the social democrats’ project, Vice Chairman of the Seimas, Gediminas Kirkilas. In his opinion, other two projects have been prepared to block the project of social democrats which, in Kirkilas’ opinion, resolves the issues of Lithuanian citizens, including the Polish minority and the Lithuanian citizens who married a foreigner. “Maybe my approach is too radical, but I think that these projects are supposed to antagonise Poland and Lithuania. They do not satisfy the needs of the Polish minority in Lithuania and are simply useless” – said Kirkilas.

Grin and bear it

Jarosław Narkiewicz, envoy from the Electoral action of Poles in Lithuania is less optimistic about the issues. In his opinion, social democrats are just playing a political game in their campaign. “I think that social democrats are trying to grin and bear it. They want to show that they are doing something good for us, but there are other, more pressing issues such as education system which needs significant changes. That would really help and benefit us, the Act on spelling of names and surnames is being talked about a lot, but it does not move us forward. Currently, it is a political game, a pre-election campaign” – said Narkiweicz for zw.lt. He added that the so called Polish postulates are regulated only by the Act on national minorities which is still non-existent in Lithuania. “A project of the Act on national minorities should be finally introduced. There, everything would be regulated, it is essential. The Act would help us to solve other issues – topographic signs, spelling, education system, financing, land retribution etc. The Act on spelling of names and surnames is a distraction that blocks the way to pass the Act on national minorities” – the politician declared.

Rape on the alphabet

Audronius Ažubalis is of different opinion. The conservative politician argues that in today’s geopolitical situation, the original spelling of names and surnames is a secondary issue. “The issue of spelling of names and surnames is a secondary and artificially blown out of proportion problem. Both Lithuanian government and the authorities of the Vilnius County should not be concerned with these issues because there the economic and social indexes are really disturbing” – said the politician.

Political scientist Alvydas Medalinskas who intends to protect the Lithuanian alphabet and supports the project of citizens’ initiative „Tłoka na rzecz państwowego języka litewskiego” claims that the idea presented by “Tłoki” is the most responsible. “I support the idea of “Tłoki” because in my opinion two things are of importance here – the Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania, which states that the Lithuanian language is a state language, and the Lithuanian alphabet. If this project does not find support in the Seimas, we will look for other compromise” – said the political scientist. “It is crucial to act in line with the Constitution, we cannot rape the Lithuanian alphabet. If there two norms are kept and the members of national minorities can spell their names and surnames however they like, it is a really good solution” – emphasises the political scientist.

Legal context

Elżbieta Kuzborska, Ph.D, the authour of the book „Sytuacja prawna mniejszości narodowych na Litwie” (“Legal stand of national minorities in Lithuania” ) notices that the lack of regulation on terms of spelling of names and surnames causes a distortion of identity of representatives of national minorities. “In terms of international law, the right to original spelling of names and surnames and their official acknowledgment is an important language right of the minority, tightly connected with dignity and identity of a human. Latin alphabet transliteration results in distortion of identity of the members of a minority. We should remember that foreign surnames, including Polish, have never been and never will be a part of the Lithuanian language, so the claim that original spelling of surnames is a threat to the state language is groundless” – says Kuzborska.

Translated by Katarzyna Kosińska within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.

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